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Dereliction of Duty at the Battle of Bunker Hill (Part 2 of 3)

As discussed in the last article, in the morning hours ahead of the afternoon Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, as the Americans dug in and prepared their defenses against the British, the first artillery company arrived on the field with two cannon, under the command of Capt. Samuel Gridley. This newly minted and inexperienced artillery captain brought his two guns into the freshly built American earthen redoubt atop Breed’s Hill, but finding no place for his pieces, he was at length ordered outside to a position between the redoubt’s outworks (a breastwork) and a new rail fence still under construction, behind a small swamp. There he was joined with another newly formed Massachusetts Artillery company, under the command of Capt. John Callender. Gridley soon after abandoned his guns, but Callender’s story is yet another case of dereliction of duty at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Callender’s men, just as inexperienced with artillery as Gridley’s men were, conducted an equally useless cannonade. Gridley had abandoned his guns and his men, though some of them loyally remained and tried to do what they could with their pieces. What happened next comes from my forthcoming book, 1775:

They soon drew the attention of the Royal Navy, which redirected its hailstorm from the redoubt to the now fully exposed colonial artillery. As the colonial guns were at a low elevation, being at the foot of Breed’s Hill, the warships had no trouble training their guns on this new target, and so began raining cannon shot all around them. One shot hit its mark, disabling in some fashion a cannon of Gridley’s company, scattering its crew and likely killing some of his men. Gridley’s remaining artillerymen, disgusted with their ineffectiveness, dissolved away into the infantry.

The 'Adams' 3-pounder field cannon in Bunker Hill Monument obelisk
The Adams 3‑pounder field cannon mounted inside the top of the Bunker Hill Monument obelisk. However, this cannon probably did not serve at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Capt. Callender soon noticed that he, like Gridley’s company, had mostly many gunpower cartridges of the wrong size. Just a short time earlier, Gen. Israel Putnam of Connecticut had come over to demonstrate to Gridley’s men how an oversized powder cartridge could be broken down and still employed, but Callender’s men had not observed this demonstration. So, with Callender’s men ignorant of what to do with their oversized cartridges, and as they all carried muskets, they began to dissolve away into the infantry. From the book:

[Callender] and his artillery officers, amid the constant barrage on their position, saw the odds were against them. So the inexperienced Callender decided to fall back with his two pieces. Though some would later declare he had done so to repack his oversized powder cartridges, he needed not draw off his pieces to do so. Whatever his motive, he gathered what men he still had, limbered his guns, and hastily ushered his workhorses away with his guns toward Bunker Hill.

Meanwhile, Gen. Putnam had been riding about the field on horseback, splitting his time between the rail fence, the new Bunker Hill entrenchments, and the [Charlestown] Neck, where he expected reinforcements. When he saw Callender apparently retreating, he was furious. Putnam, described as addicted to profanity, would later confess in church for how much he swore this day. Undoubtedly then, he was swearing all they way over to Callender.

When Putnam reached Callender, he ordered the officer to stop and go back. But Callender lied, claiming he had no cartridges. (Callender’s supporters would later claim that he meant he had no proper sized cartridges.) Putnam dismounted, flung open one of the cannon’s sideboxes, and saw plenty of cartridges and shot. Now Putnam’s temper was beyond furious. He first made sure Callender knew how the oversized cartridges could be broken down, just as Putnam had earlier shown Gridley’s men. Putnam then ordered Callender back, but the artillery officer remonstrated. Callender of Massachusetts was under no legal obligation to follow the orders of Putnam of Connecticut. So with a few choice vulgarities, Putnam threatened him with immediate death if he did not return to his post. To this, Callender conceded, turning his men back toward the swamp. Whether or not Callender was truly persuaded to stay with his pieces or not, once Putnam had ridden off, the rest of Callender’s men deserted him. Callender was thus left alone and so he too abandoned his guns. For his desertion, he would later be court-martialed.

Thus, of the four colonial cannon on the field, one was disabled and the remainder now stood silent.

Next: one more case of dereliction of duty…

Side note: I wish to apologize to my readers that this article has come so many weeks after the first. As those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook know, I’ve been hard at work finalizing a polish of the book ahead of my agent sending it to publishers. This is now done, and you can expect my usual rate of a post every two weeks or so. Coming in October: a series delving into the details of Joseph Warren, and featuring a guest blogger and fellow historian author Sam Forman.

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About Derek W. Beck

I write stuff. I film stuff too.

8 Responses to Dereliction of Duty at the Battle of Bunker Hill (Part 2 of 3)

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